College flight driven by Rauner budget impasse

Latest figures from 2017 found almost half of university-bound Illinois freshmen left state

The University of Illinois Alma Mater extended her arms to fewer state students during the two-year budget impasse under Gov. Rauner, but the tide might have turned back last fall. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

The University of Illinois Alma Mater extended her arms to fewer state students during the two-year budget impasse under Gov. Rauner, but the tide might have turned back last fall. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

College-bound Illinois freshmen left the state in increasing numbers during the two-year budget impasse between Gov. Rauner and the General Assembly.

The latest figures from 2017 released Tuesday by the Illinois Board of Higher Education found that almost half of all Illinois graduates from high school who were bound for a four-year college or university left the state — 48.4 percent.

The year 2017, of course, was the year the General Assembly broke the impasse to first pass a budget over Rauner’s veto. But the damage was done.

“There is evidence that the rate of out-of-state enrollment accelerated during the Illinois budget impasse,” said Eric Lichtenberger, deputy director of the IBHE’s Information Management and Research division. “In the years immediately before the budget impasse that started in mid-2015, the rate of outmigration to four-year institutions increased by only 1.2 percent. Since the start of the impasse, outmigration shot up by at least 3.7 percent per year.”

The numbers are especially telling among Illinois graduates from high school who were headed to a four-year college or university — basically the best and brightest of state students. Some 42.8 percent of those students left the state in 2013, 43.3 percent the following year. But that percentage of so-called outmigration accelerated to 44.9 percent in 2015, 46.6 percent in 2016, and then 48.4 percent in 2017.

“This is not good news,” said Nyle Robinson, interim executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “The outmigration trend continues to increase, and that means we’re not only losing students to out-of-state colleges and universities, we’re likely losing them to other states for good. We want to educate our state’s students and see them flourish in jobs here in the Land of Lincoln.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin commented on that phenomenon last year. “We wonder why we lose so many high-school grads who go off to other places," Durbin said. "Part of it is because we stopped investing in our universities.” And when they leave, he added, they oftentimes don’t come back, contributing to the state’s population drain.

But there are signs the state might have already reversed that trend. Last fall, among the 7,609 freshmen enrolled at the state’s flagship University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 5,847 were in-state students — the largest number in a decade.

“Looking forward, we anticipate that a commitment to stable funding from the state budget will allow greater confidence in the health of Illinois’s public universities,” Robinson said. “That, in turn, will encourage more high-school graduates to pursue their college career in their home state.

“While this is a trying time for higher education in Illinois, I am hopeful that the tide will turn in this legislative session,” he added. “Our colleges and universities, the IBHE staff, and families across the state understand that it’s time to re-invest in higher education. In order for colleges and universities to hold the line on tuition — which many have done over the years — state funding needs to be increased.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker proposed an increase in funding for higher education in his first budget address last month.

The trend is nothing new, extending back to a lowered state commitment to higher education going back to at least 2002. According to the IBHE: “In fiscal year 2002, state funding for public universities covered 72 percent of costs. But by fiscal year 2018, tuition was covering 65 percent of university costs and state funding provided only 35 percent.”

That had consequences, the IBHE report added. In 2002, only 29.3 percent of the four-year college-going Illinois graduates from public high school left the state. Over the next 15 years, that increased more than 19 percentage points to 48.4 percent, a jump of almost two-thirds, 65.2 percent.

The recent increases were less pronounced among all graduates from high school and those headed for any kind of college or university. Of all graduating seniors, 18.4 left the state in 2015, 19 percent in 2016, and 20.3 percent in 2017. Of all those heading to college, 26.6 percent left the state in 2015, 27.6 percent in 2016, and 27.9 percent in 2017.

In fact, the lone bright spot in the newly released 2017 figures, according to the IBHE, was that in-state enrollment grew at Illinois community colleges, where 2,477 more graduates from public high schools began classes than in 2016.

“It’s a priority for IBHE that Illinois move back toward a stable funding stream that makes our colleges and universities more affordable,” Robinson said.